Few Indo-Pakistan issues are as emotive as the Siachen Glacier “dispute” — a misleading term given that India controls all of Siachen while Pakistan only hankers for it. Each time Siachen is up for discussion articles appear in the Indian media, arguing for “demilitarising” the area in order to “build confidence”, or in other words to hand Islamabad a sop that might evoke corresponding generosity. The Pakistan army badly wants a troop pullback, given the comprehensive mauling it has received and the unfavourable positions it holds. Meanwhile, Indian hardliners argue that, as in Kargil, Pakistan could backtrack from even a signed agreement, occupying Indian positions after our army has climbed down.
Today, Siachen is on the table again, with Pakistan’s influential army pressing for talks after a killer avalanche in the area buried 127 Pakistani soldiers. And The Hindu, a newspaper that advocates concessions in Siachen, published a front-page headline story on Sunday entitled “Siachen was almost a done deal in 1992”. The article, presenting well-known and widely documented facts as news, “reveals” that a mutual pullback agreement was at hand in the sixth round of Siachen talks in November 1992, but “the Indian political leadership developed cold feet”, forcing our negotiators to pull back from the agreement.
Quoting the head of the Indian delegation, N N Vohra, who was then the defence secretary, the article says that a scheduled signing ceremony had to be called off overnight, because the Indian government decided to conclude matters at the next round of talks in January 1993.
Newspapers are entitled to their views, howsoever unsound. But it is mystifying why well-known events are being presented as front-page news headlines. In his seminal book, Siachen: Conflict Without End, Lt Gen V R Raghavan, then the army’s Director General of Military Operations and a key member of the Indian delegation, has explained why he thinks India’s political leadership changed its mind: growing differences between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party over the Babri Masjid issue made a political consensus difficult; and the political leadership had second thoughts in view of the violence that Pakistan was instigating in J&K.
But the Hindu article portrays New Delhi as somehow stabbing Pakistan in the back by refusing to sign. Surely nobody can argue that a nation cannot reconsider an agreement up to the time that it actually signs it?
The article incorrectly mentions that, “the Pakistani delegation offered a proposal that met India’s demand of recording existing ground positions before withdrawal of troops from a proposed zone of disengagement.” India has always demanded (and the Indian draft of the agreement published by The Hindu corroborates this) that the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL), which marks the dividing line between the two armies, be clearly spelt out in the agreement. Pakistan, however, proposed that the AGPL be buried in an Appendix in the form of a “redeployment schedule”. In 1992, India’s demand had not been met, but it was still (unwisely) considering acceding to Pakistan’s request.
The reason this would be unwise is that a “redeployment schedule” tucked away in an Appendix would never have the authority of a marked map with a delineated and specified AGPL. It cannot be forgotten that the only reason the international community, especially the United States, turned against Pakistan at the time of the Kargil intrusions was that India could present a signed map, on which the two sides had delineated the Line of Control (LoC) in 1972.
Furthermore, when the entire 700 kilometre-long LoC – extending from Akhnur, near Jammu, to NJ 9842, where Siachen begins – has been delineated and marked on a signed map, there is no reason at all for the 109 km-long AGPL to be marked in any other way. Pakistan argues that the AGPL was formed due to Indian perfidy (and violation of the Shimla Agreement). But India is on equally solid ground in arguing that the LoC was formed by Pakistani perfidy and violation of J&K’s Instrument of Accession to India.
New Delhi must make it clear that Siachen will never be a handout to Pakistan, or a “confidence-building measure” to take forward the Indo-Pak dialogue. Siachen is a vital part of the Kashmir “core dispute”; for that reason, it cannot be a mere confidence-building measure.
In addition, any Siachen pullback must be made conditional on a Kargil pullback, where Pakistani perfidy in 1999 forced the Indian Army to deploy some 20,000 soldiers, in conditions that rival Siachen, to prevent Pakistani soldiers from violating the LoC again. The Indian Army has mastered conditions in Siachen; Pakistan clearly has not. The conditions in Kargil are less favourable to us.
India offers space for all shades of opinion, including the Wagah candle-lighters who believe that the vicious, vengeful, self-destructive extremism that spreads alarmingly across Pakistan is merely a thin crust, beneath which bubbles a wellspring of tolerance, secularism and democratic liberalism that will burst forth any day, washing away the evil. The fraternal functions that these idealists organise do no harm and, perhaps, do a little good. But when this cuckoo lobby pushes to hand over hard-won territory for “building confidence” with Pakistan, it is time to push back. The only confidence this will build in Rawalpindi is that New Delhi has not learnt the lessons of history.